Praying for Armageddon
(Norway, 96 min.)
Dir. Tonje Hessen Schei & Michael Rowley
Program: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)
The Christian faith has always functioned on the belief that this world is only temporary. One day Jesus will return to judge us all and usher the righteous to heaven. For U.S. evangelicals, the end of the world is not only to be embraced, but something that should be expedited. As influential pastor John Hagge famously stated, the Bible stands for “Basic Information Before Leaving Earth.” Tonje Hessen Schei and Michael Rowley’s documentary Praying for Armageddon highlights how the push to fulfill a biblical Doomsday prophecy has led to dire political ramification in America and abroad.
Believing that Jesus shall return riding a horse and carrying a sword, like a general leading his religious soldiers into battle, U.S. evangelical preachers have been spreading their message far beyond the confines of the pews in their mega churches. For the last couple of decades, Christian fundamentalist groups have systematically infiltrated every level of American politics. Serving as religious advertisers and trusted lobbyists to some of the country’s most powerful politicians, including former President Donald J. Trump, their influence not only threatens U.S. democracy, but has had a damaging impact on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Organizations like Christians Unite For Israel (CUFI), a political powerhouse led by pastor Hagee, have lobbied for billions of U.S. dollars in military aid to support Israel. Championing the importance of a strong Israel, their goal is not to help the Israeli people like they claim, but to further division and conflict. By continuing to ignite tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians, including convincing President Trump to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the U.S. evangelical groups hope to light the fuse on a violent conflict that would trigger Armageddon. Using the belief that they are on the righteous path to justify their actions, they continually ignore the human cost of their perpetual interference.
As Lee Fang, a reporter at The Intercept, notes at one point in the documentary, many of the proponents of the pro-Israel policies being pushed “don’t want to talk about the human rights issue.” Evangelical leaders dodge these questions by banning left-leaning journalists from their events or simply sticking to their well rehearsed talking points. Spending a large portion of the film following Fang as he traverses the U.S. to speak with politicians and evangelical spiritual leaders, Praying for Armageddon attempts to unravel the unhealthy knot that ties policymaking and ideology together. While Fang secures interviews with several big names, the most revealing discussion is with former preacher Frank Schaeffer. Once considered part of evangelical royalty, Schaeffer now warns of the dangers that come with a religious sect that is heavily armed.
While the documentary cites January 6th at the U.S. Capital as an example of the violence that can erupt on American soil, it is pastor Gary Burd of the Mission: M25 ministries who really hits the message home. A motorcycle riding and leather jacket clad preacher, Burd believes that God’s true soldiers are the radicals who will rise up in his honour. Longing to be right on the frontline when Jesus rides into battle, he preaches to his predominantly male congregation of bikers the importance of taking up the sword rather than turning the other cheek.
Offering a chilling look at just how far the tentacles of the Christian fundamental groups reach, the film frequently reminds viewers that there are real stakes to the violent game they are playing. The filmmakers go to Israel to talk to those, including an Israeli Rabbi and a member of a Palestinian grass roots activist organization, directly impacted by these U.S. policies. Capturing both the devastation of war and the defiant arrogance of those, such as American settlers, who openly steal Palestinian property through some questionable land claims, the film shows how the meddling of U.S. evangelicals have caused fear and pain abroad. Adding to the sense of urgency of the rising global tensions, the filmmakers often splice together images of current events (e.g. wars, BLM protest, natural disasters, etc.) with the voiceovers of doomsdays sermons from the likes of John Hagee.
Playing like a political thriller, Praying for Armageddon sounds the alarm for all the political fires that are being started by this dangerous influence, but lack instructions on where to find the firehoses to put them out. For all its fear inducing moments, the film does not let the audience walk away with a clear sense of what the average person can do to help change the course that fundamentalist groups have set the world on. Is it not as easy as voting out policy makers as other will simply take their place. Trump may no longer be in the oval office but all those religious “kingmakers” who helped get him elected still remain. It is a point that is made clear when Schei and Rowley’s documentary pivots to show how evangelicals are systematically using U.S. military training facilities to recruit new disciples who will kill for God and country.
Praying for Armageddon works best as an introductory lesson on the dangerous influence U.S. evangelicals have on modern politics. The film provides a solid understanding of the power Christian fundamentalists have amassed in their quest to expedite the Second Coming of Christ. One just wishes it provided a few suggestions on which wires to cut before the Judgement Day bomb goes off.